Interview: John Bellamy Foster

Marx and the Earth: Why we wrote an ‘anti-critique’

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The German daily Junge Welt interviews John Bellamy Foster on capitalism’s destruction of nature, ecological Marxism from Marx’s time to the present, and the environmental crisis as a class issue.

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The German daily Junge Welt interviews John Bellamy Foster on capitalism’s destruction of nature, ecological Marxism from Marx’s time to the present, and the environmental crisis as a class issue.

Translated, with permission, from the August 23 2016 issue of the Berlin-based daily newspaper Junge Welt (Young World), which bears no responsibility for the English-language text.


Interview by Christian Stache


You and your colleague Paul Burkett just released your new book Marx and the Earth: An Anti-Critique. The subtitle classifies your new book as an “Anti-Critique.” To whom do you reply and, most importantly, why do you answer them?

JBF: A little history is in order here. Since the 1980s there has emerged, first in the United States/Canada and Europe, and now all around the world, what is known as the ecosocialist movement.

First-stage ecosocialism grafted Green ideas on Marxism, or sometimes Marxist ideas on Green theory, creating a hybrid analysis. Pioneering thinkers such as Ted Benton, André Gorz, and James O’Connor faulted Marx and Engels for the ecological blinders, or even anti-ecological bases, of their thought. In general, first-stage ecosocialism, though representing an important advance, developed under the hegemony of Green theory. Some, though not all, first-stage ecosocialists were very adamant in arguing that ecosocialism had displaced classical socialism or Marxism. Ecosocialism in such cases thus became a kind of negation of classical socialism.

Second-stage ecosocialism, in contrast, is usually seen as having begun with Paul Burkett’s Marx and Nature (1999) and my Marx’s Ecology (2000), soon joined by numerous other analysts including figures like Brett Clark, Hannah Holleman, Stefano Longo, Kohei Saito, and Richard York. Elmar Altvater was an important precursor. Here thinkers returned to the foundations of classical historical materialism in order to examine the role of ecological analysis in the deep structure of Marx and Engels’ critique of political economy.

What transpired over the last decade and a half or more was a long debate between first-stage and second-stage ecosocialists on the status of Marx’s ecology, in which first-stage ecosocialists were gradually forced to accede the ground at nearly every point. Marx and the Earth is in many ways the culminating stage in this debate. It is a response to a number of counterattacks and persistent misconceptions aimed at Marx and Engels, particularly in the area of ecological economics. Some ecological economists like Joan Martinez-Alier and James O’Connor argued that Marx and Engels failed to incorporate thermodynamics into their analysis. Similarly, it has been charged that Engels rejected the second law of thermodynamics.

Other criticisms directed at classical historical materialism are also addressed, such as Joel Kovel’s claim that Marx and Engels excluded any notion of the intrinsic value of nature, Daniel Tanuro’s charge that Marx and Engels ignored the various qualitatively different forms of energy, and John Clark’s contention that Marx denied the organic relations between nature and society.

What exactly constitutes an “Anti-Critique” in the sense you use it?

JBF: In Marxian theory the notion of anti-critique has a long history, associated most directly with Rosa Luxemburg’s The Accumulation of Capital: An Anti-Critique, in which she replied to her Marxist critics. Engels’s earlier, more famous Anti-Dühring can also be viewed as an anti-critique.

An anti-critique in historical materialism is a work that engages with a critique of one’s own perspective, and generates an anti-critique in response, exploring the inner core and historical bases of both perspectives. The objects to achieve by these means are self-clarification and a degree of self-critique, together with a major dialectical advance in theoretical understanding. In this way Marxism has continually deepened and revolutionized its perspective, renewing itself in terms of both its foundational views and new historical challenges.

In our case, however, we were not responding primarily to attacks on our own ideas, but rather to critiques that first-stage ecosocialists had directed at Marx and Engels’s ecological analyses.

Why do you think it is necessary to counter critiques of Marx, Engels and Marxism particularly regarding eco-socialism/ecological debates?

JBF: It is like asking: Why is it necessary to counter critiques of Darwin in relation to evolution? The answer should be obvious: It is a matter of science. However much evolutionary theory has developed since the mid-nineteenth century we keep going back to Darwin and his work, which generates new insights. This is one of the ways in which science advances.

So it is not just a matter of defending Marx and Engels, or even Marxism. Moreover, responding to criticisms, if the analysis reaches deep enough, often reveals new things about the core perspectives, allowing us to advance our own “progressive research programs.”

In three of the five main chapters of the book you deal with the accusations against “the dual founders of historical materialism” regarding their study of and their relation to thermodynamics, in particular to the work of the 19th century Ukrainian socialist Sergei Podolinsky? Briefly, what are the charges against them and why do you consider them to be invalid?

JBF: Podolinsky was a Ukrainian Marxist who was a follower of Marx and Engels. He is best known as the founding figure of ecological economics because of his study of “Human Labour and the Unity of Force.” Podolinksy sent an early draft of his manuscript to Marx in 1880 and Marx took copious notes and wrote back to him. Podolinsky then produced another, expanded draft that he published shortly afterward in French, followed by an Italian version, and one in German in 1883, published shortly after Marx’s death. There was also a Russian edition. We do not have Marx’s views on Podolinsky’s manuscript because none of his letters to Podolinsky survived. However, Engels wrote two letters to Marx in 1882, on Podolinsky’s work, at Marx’s request.

Engels pointed to Podolinsky’s important achievements but also criticized Podolinsky’s work for its crude calculations of energy use in agriculture. He stressed Podolinsky’s failure to take into account not only the human metabolism, but also to incorporate fertilizer and fossil fuels (primarily coal) into his calculations. Engels was clearly disturbed by some of the extreme aspects of Podolinsky’s analysis, where the latter saw the human being as the “perfect thermodynamic machine” able to “restart its own firebox.” Podolinsky thought that the accumulation of solar heat on earth and a possible increase in global temperature was a sign of human progress.

What is significant here is that Martinez-Alier, James O’Connor and others, claimed that Marx and Engels had turned a blind eye to Podolinsky and thereby rejected ecological economics, and with it an ecological world view. We show that this was not the case in the chapters of our book on this, where we unearth the whole story of Marx and Engels’s discussions of energetics.

You write that there is a “complex materialist ecology at the root of classical Marxism.” What are the basic and most important insights of Marx and Engels regarding the destruction of nature in capitalism?

JBF: This is difficult to answer. The principal discoveries have to do with Marx’s theory of metabolic rift, his ecological-value analysis, the analysis of ecological imperialism, and Marx and Engels’s development of the dialectics of ecology. Most important from the standpoint of praxis is Marx’s extraordinarily radical definition of sustainability, in which he said no one owns the earth, rather people must maintain it for future generations as good heads of the household. Socialism, for Marx, was defined in Capital, vol. 3 in terms of the rational regulation by the associated producers of the metabolism between human beings and nature, along with the full development of human potential.

Marx adopted the concept of metabolism from the natural science of his day, thereby developing an ecological systems analysis that anticipated today’s systems ecology. Marx’s metabolism argument took the form of a dialectical mediation between the labor and production process looked at from an ecological standpoint, and natural processes as a whole. Capitalism’s alienated “social metabolism” manifested itself as an “irreparable rift” in the human relation to nature through production under capitalism.

Marx’s ecological value-form theory argued that value production under capitalism undermined the natural-material/use value components of wealth, generating contradictions not only in relation to labor, but also in relation to nature. Marx’s overall ecological-value analysis reveals the contradictions inherent in this, embedded in capitalism’s treatment of nature as “a free gift for capital.”

You mentioned the generations of Marxists who have tried to interpret ecological destructions through the lens of Marx’ and Engels’ tremendous work. How do you conceive the history between Marxism and Ecology?

JBF: The history of the relation of socialism to ecology is not very well-known. The main reason for this is that ecology as a way of understanding the world was a product of natural science more than social science and even more than cultural theory. But Marxism when it revived in the West in the 1960s was distinguished from classical Marxian thought in that it largely excluded natural science and with it nature itself from the Marxian tradition.

If we look just at the period from the post-Second World War years to the present and if we concentrate on those who can be called ecosocialists or ecological Marxists, we get a fairly coherent picture, at least in the English-speaking world. There was a “pre-figurative phase” in which there were enormous contributions by individuals like K. William Kapp, Barry Commoner, Virginia Brodine, Paul Sweezy, Charles H. Anderson, and Alan Schnaiberg, among others. In this early phase it was generally assumed that Marxism/socialism and ecology were a natural fit. This was followed by first-stage ecosocialism and second-stage ecosocialism.

The history of Marxism and ecology gets more complicated of course if one looks back to the period from the late nineteenth century to the Second World War. Here we find several generations of socialist ecological theorists who were deeply affected by both Marx and Darwin, particularly in Britain. It is this period that socialism had its main influence on ecology. This was before the rise of the modern ecological movement and so the crucial intellectual developments at that time were related mainly to the discovery of fundamental ecological relations themselves.

And in the Soviet Union?

JBF: The USSR had the most dynamic ecological science in the world in the 1920s. This was largely but not completely destroyed in the purges under Stalin. It was partly resurrected, based initially on the natural sciences, in the post-Stalin decades, which did not prevent the Soviet Union from having a destructive relation to its environment. It is important to recognize that it was the Soviet scientists who were the first to point to accelerated climate change. There were important developments in Marxian ecology in the USSR that are only now being recognized. Logically, we do not have to support everything that was happening in Soviet society or downplay its failures in order to recognize the value of critical intellectual currents and the genuine scientific achievements.

Why do you think lots of ecological scholars make such great efforts to ignore, downplay, or distance themselves from these insights by Marx and Engels?

JBF: The fact that such divisions still exist should not surprise us. Ecosocialism emerged mainly during a period of decline of the left in the 1980s and 1990s. Marxism was totally discredited in some eyes by the fall of the Soviet Union. Intellectually we saw the rise of postmodernism in this period. At the same time the Cold War ideology persisted, now taking on a kind of post-Cold War version, but hardly less inclined to criticize Marxist ideas. Some of this filtered into ecology despite its own left history.

Moreover, Marxism is a revolutionary philosophy, tied to the belief, expectation, or hope that the working class will be able to carry out its own self-emancipation. Some leftist academics are frightened by this. Others claim that the working class is by nature anti-environmental.

Finally, the truth is there are a lot of non-radical, capitalist-oriented environmentalists.

One of the traditional flaws of ecological activists as well as thinkers is to treat ecological problems as human or species problems, as if there are no winners and losers of ecocide. How do you explain this ideological misinterpretation?

JBF: Yes, there are all sorts of varieties of this “we are all in this together” notion within liberal environmentalism. One is the Malthusian view that all ecological problems are due to their being too many people. Another is the claim, made by Al Gore, that we all reside on a spaceship earth so we are all essentially in the same position.

Ian Angus gave the best overall answer to your question that I know of in a remarkable chapter of his new book Facing the Anthropocene: Fossil Capitalism and the Crisis of the Earth System. The chapter is entitled “We Are Not All in This Together” and addresses race, class, and international inequality, along with other exclusions associated with the deepening crisis of the Anthropocene.

The truth is that the environmental problems and the mounting catastrophes facing humanity have everything to do with economic and environmental injustice and a society that puts the accumulation of capital before people and the planet.

At first glance the articles of the book seem to be directed to the scientific community. What can political activists and people who are interested in solving ecological problems learn from it?

JBF: Marx and the Earth is a book, written for a more theoretically inclined audience. Historically, Marxism has always taken the development of theory/science very seriously, without which revolutionary praxis would be impossible. In the struggles to define the critique of capitalism embodied in Marxian ecology and ecosocialism it is essential to get the theory and the science correct to the extent possible. Our practice, the clarity of our ideas, our way forward depend on that.

The real importance of our work will assert itself only in practice.

Our anti-critque ends on a very concrete basis-relating Marx’s metabolic rift to his insistence on metabolic restoration and the creation of a sustainable society. It is this that mainly defines the ecological struggle of our age. But such a metabolic restoration can only be accomplished by going against the logic of capital as part of the larger movement toward socialism.

John Bellamy Foster

John Bellamy Foster is a professor of Sociology at the University of Oregon, and editor of the US socialist magazine Monthly Review. He has published several books on political economy, the theory of imperialism and Marxist ecology, some of which have been published in German translation by Laika-Verlag. 

John Bellamy Foster and Paul Burkett: Marx and the Earth. An Anti-Critique. Brill, Leiden / Boston 2016, 316 pp, 115 Euro.

(C&C note: A less expensive paperback edition will be published by Haymarket Books in December.)